The Apocalypse Chapters
A collection of mostly flash fiction pertaining to a zombie apocalypse from the perspective of the unwilling survivors. Stories selected from a collection of seventy stories written in 2014.
Or read directly online below.
The content here contains visual depictions of violence and the physical effects of violence, as well as generally mature themes. Reader discretion advised.
The Cold White Light
The sun gives us light and asks for nothing in return. Our fires crackle with an orange glow that makes us think of primitive men in a time when life was simple and nature gave us all we needed and we didn’t care if we never figured out all the secrets of the universe. Light guides us in dark places and warms us when even our spirit is cold. But I think giving simple characteristics to the past and to fire is facile, and that in reality often things that appear simple are complex and things that appear complex are simple. What are you supposed to say to your 14 year old kid when their mum’s not coming back? That creatures you thought lived only in literature and comic books are just as real as the enigmatic serial killers that circumambulate amongst us like a hidden cancer. The simple fact is: you can’t. There are no words strong enough, forceful enough, to explain to a kid something like that. But they can handle it, they’re strong. Because they’re kids. Because he’s stronger than me. I kicked a split log onto the campfire, and a shower of embers puffed into the dark. I sat down on the grass and looked over at my boy who in turn stared blankly at the flames that looked like sheets of orange paper bending in the wind. We could have easily spent our time counting our days, but what’s the point?
What we called our lives was behind us, and our future might as well be as far away. I don’t mourn for the loss of the civilisation in which I lived, for I believe that all civilisations are destined to fall. But what about our future? How can we build anything when these creatures, shadows of ourselves, are coming back from the dead? It’s incomprehensible. Maybe a philosopher could explain it better than me. I’m just a father who’s gotta look upon the face of his son every day and know that somewhere inside he blames me for what happened. I twisted off the cap of the plastic bottle I was carrying in my duffel bag and put the bottle in the hands of my boy. He didn’t let his eyes stray from the campfire. I saw him bend his neck as he watched a spray of embers shower from a collapsing log. I was never much of a theist, nor did I ever really comprehend the concept of a soul. But I feel now that if the soul exists then the light it produces is cold, like the glimmer from a distant moon.
I Buried You
In the living days his name was John Wilkins. That’s what they called him. They, the outsiders. They, the day runners. They, the ones who married and raised children and drank sweating bottles of beer on summer days when the Scottish sky looked like something from the coast of the Costa Brava. John Wilkins never understood the common man. He felt as though on the day of creation he was made different. But John Wilkins knew exactly how to act like a common man. And that’s exactly what he did. Those who knew John never really knew him, but their words were always positive and kind, never ill or violent or with bad intentions – they were distant, yes, but they were never intentionally made to harm. John was just like one of them, they thought, an average Joe who wouldn’t, couldn’t, hurt a fly. But John, like most people, had secrets.
John filled his glass with water from the tap while he looked out the window at the green lawn in his backyard. He smiled to himself and took a long, hard drink before placing it gently on the counter. He went outside where the breeze rustled through trees like a violent rumour, and he knelt down in front of a hole he had dug that morning. When the end days hit like a cut of lightning, John Wilkins survived. He thought it proof that there were no Gods, for John knew he was different, unneeded, dangerous. He had been picked up by a group of university kids, those gentle souls, and they took him in their car across Escosse bridge before running out of petrol. John looked at a puffy cloud sailing across a board of blue, and in the distance he saw the black cut-outs of sparrows dotting the sky, and he wondered then for the first time that life really was beautiful. A girl in the back of the car wept into a handkerchief while two others comforted her. If only human life was as beautiful, thought John.
John Wilkins carried a trade hatchet with him in his backpack. He waited until the sun dipped into the horizon and the sky turned the colour of burnt coal, then he whipped out the hatchet and brought the blade down on the university students as they slept, streaking their sleeping bags, spraying lines of red across the walls, blood dripping from his knuckles, his face taut, his eyes calm and serene. One girl tried to get away, her feet slipping against the floor, but John Wilkins simply unhooked his knife from his belt and slashed her across the neck in one movement. He buried them all in a park in western Dunglen. He leaned against a shovel and watched a raven circle above him. He thought he heard the sound of feet crunching grass, but he could not see anything. Some say the dead are loud in their moans and that they can be avoided. Others say they are as silent as a whisper and that they catch us when we least expect it. Still, others believe that to die from the dead is a result of karma, and that all the troubles of humankind is a result of ill or immoral choices. John Wilkins never had the time or the care to think about such average thoughts. He had recognised the eyes that looked over him without care, eyes he had seen a lifetime ago, and he remembered last when he gazed down into the glazed eyes that once looked up at him from a hole in his garden, and his final thought was simply: shoulda buried her deeper.
Hugh stood in the rain for a long time and watched the water bounce against the skin of the bodies in the hole, the water running over their dead and motionless eyes. The paint on Hugh’s face was running in lines. His smile was big and wide and jagged. Hugh opened a Zippo lighter and smelled the lighter fluid. He ran his thumb over the emery wheel, but not fast enough to spark it. He didn’t expect the rain, and he knew that the petrol he had brought would now be useless. ‘Sorry, ma. Sorry, pa,’ said Hugh. ‘I’m a clown. You can’t stop it, no. Not now, anyway. Look at you. You’re dead. In a hole. What you gonna do about that?’ Hugh thought he heard the abyssal groan of the living dead through the trees. Soon, he thought, his old family would find a new family, one that is just as corrupted and ugly as the one he had grown up in. When he walked away, the hole was bubbling with muddy water, and only the noses and faded eyes of the bodies were visible, staring up into a stained heaven.
Grave, Sweet Grave
The world was the colour of a negative photograph, but both lightless and without shadow. Here the dead didn’t look dead. They moved like the living, but their eyes reflected nothing and showed no signs of emotion. Owen Dale pushed the large wooden board and it fell into the mud. He looked up at a sky that swirled with greens and blues like a giant lollipop. He sat up in the coffin. A dagger with a hilt decorated with a rat skull protruded from his chest. He climbed out of the coffin. So this is death, thought Owen. Immortality was a fickle business. He saw white shapes turn black and move without moving. They would suddenly appear in another location, their previous self fading moments after, so that there were also two of the same shape for the smallest time. He walked past the trees that were decorated with painted skulls, their eyes filled with a blue glow that seemed to watch Owen, their mouths snapping. This isn’t exactly the immortality Owen was expecting. Lady Broussard tapped him on the shoulder and told him he must leave the shadow world or his soul will be eaten by the soul-eaters. Shadow world? Soul-eaters? Lady Broussard, you crazy woman.
I can’t play football. That’s not, ‘I don’t want to play football’, it’s: ‘I don’t possess the ability to play football.’ Technically, I shouldn’t even be a survivor. But I am. I was unpopular, ugly, and my girlfriends were just friends who were girls. Well, they didn’t know they were my friends. It was more of a distant thing. As in, I watched them from a distance. I was a member of the chess club. I’m good at maths. That’s about it, I think. Yeah. You see, I was such a loser that I wasn’t even picked on or bullied. Perhaps a cruelty worse than any other. To have existed yet to have had an existence not worth acknowledging. How’s that for being pathetic? If there was one thing I ever wanted it was for the universe to know I was alive. Or at least my classmates.
But I’ll tell you something, and if this is one of those sonsofbitches who got all the ladies in the pre-days, then I hope you die. I work at the high school now. My name’s Jed Hailblum. And all those years of not having any athletic ability and being ignored by my peers was simply a test: I am alive, and soon I will control the high school and grow from it the Empire of the Dirt of the World and I will rule over Dunglen as the Lord and Supreme Commander of Jedtopia. The dead will be my servants. The living? My cattle.
I thought it was just another day. I had combed my beard and had put on my ‘Arcade Fire’ t-shirt because I was sure that day was going to be great. I rode my bicycle over Escosse bridge, the wind whistling through my hair, the smell of sea salt in the air, a barge with seagulls circling its cargo passing under the bridge. What a day to be alive, I thought. But my daily trip from the university to my favourite coffee shop was going to prove disastrous.
I walked into the coffee shop and turned off my iPod and pulled off my earbuds. Jesus, the smell of coffee was strong and powerful and I had the sudden feeling to go home and write a book on it. I got my notebook from the back pocket of my skinny jeans and wrote down a reminder note. Then I ordered a coffee and sat down by the window. When I saw a dude with an arm off chew out a hole in another dude’s neck across the street, I thought about the horrid city I lived in, and wished I had been born in New York. Little did I know that this had nothing to do with your average Scottish affair. I think maybe I had been bitten when I was trying to get out the back door. I don’t know. The thing is, the blood loss is making me see and imagine things and I can’t even be sure of anything anymore. Maybe I’m not dead. Or maybe I was never born. Think about it. Maybe this all an illusion, and that trippy film ‘The Matrix’ was right all along. I bet Hollywood made that just to mess with us and to make us think the idea is flimsy. I believe it, man. I’m a believer. Hey, I can’t feel my legs anymore. It’s time to go. Peace out, brothers. Send this notebook up to the big man in the sky. Ah, shit, I’m bleeding all over my Arcade Fire shirt. That cost me 50 pounds, man.
Dead Moon Rising
In the ‘70s my brother and I were into the hard rock scene, mostly for the booze and the girls who threw themselves at us while we were high on whites and rum and tequila sunrises, their standards low, their skin hard and cracked. I thought that was what life was about: living large, living fast, and if things got tough just stick on another ACDC song and pop the cap off a bottle of McOwen’s. I played bass for a band from Braellen; it was a couple of country brothers trying to make it big in the city. And hey, they made it big, we made it big. But like most things that grow too large, they inevitably fall.
I remember a time in 1976 when I woke up with the taste of cigarette ash in my mouth. To my left was a girl I couldn’t remember the name of, and I was naked. Stark naked. I climbed out of bed and dressed in the shadows made by the puffing curtains, and then I went down to the pub and ordered a coffee and bagel and ate at a window table so I could watch the trees moving in the wind. We were all inspired by American culture, but few of us could ever realistically travel to America to live it, but in the ‘70s the American culture came to us. Life was great. It was grand. But I think now that maybe our actions back then have caused absolute horror for us today.
Today, I’m a survivor. I live under the pale moon and sleep during the day. Why? Because I’m a rocker at heart. I see the moon and I remember nights when we’d be so high on pills and powder that turned into colours and transformed my memories into an unabated kaleidoscope of synaesthesia. I walk the nights of Dunglen and I stand in front of old bars where we played and I remember the summer of ‘72 when I was young and thought life was grand and that I’d live forever. Days of innocence are long gone. But I dream, unlike many others. I dream of the past. I dream of the times that I know I’ll never get back, and I think of my parents who are both dead, my brother that I will probably never hear from again and whose death will never be confirmed nor denied. I think of my childhood and simple things, like eating ice cream and summer evenings when my parents were still happy and I like to remember their laughter that is now confined to a memory that is as unreliable as our future.
Before the Meat Turns Green
It’s always raining in horror stories. But what about days that are dry and cloudy, the wind soft, the scent of flowers from the surrounding meadows strong in the air, the streets of the small village empty while shadows pool across the cobbled streets. Imagine this, because that is how this story begins. He wasn’t a butcher. He was a librarian. Why the hell was he holed up in a butchery? Oh, maybe because heading over there to buy the wife something nice for dinner sounded like a pretty cool thing to do. He didn’t even get to buy the damn meat. That was two weeks ago. Charles Darbonne brought the meat cleaver down and halved the severed leg.
See, when the power went out, so did the meat. Most of it had turned green already, but Charles was a clever man. Charles didn’t want to attract the attention of the dead outside, so he had to eat the flesh raw. That was ok. It was better to just wait this whole thing out, despite being in an unpleasant situation, but sooner or later everything would return to normal. Come on, that was just sense, he thought. He sat on the tiled floor and chewed the meat, all the while trying to put the sounds coming from the cooler out of his mind. He couldn’t do it. The wailing grew louder. Goddamnit. You’re going to attract the dead, you idiot. Charles Darbonne stood up and opened the cooler door and when he did he released a smell that was so noisome, so foetid, that one couldn’t help but gag. He looked down at a man whom was tied up in the corner. A gag had been tied around his mouth, but it had slipped past his chin. Charles knelt down so he was eye-to-eye with Hugh.
‘Hey, bud. Sorry about all this. Here, you should eat something. You’re not looking too good, and right now we need each other more than ever.’
Charles Darbonne put his hand on Hugh’s forehead and forced the meat into his mouth. Hugh gagged, puked on the ground, screamed, tears dripping from his eyes. Charles smacked him across the face with the back of his hand and corrected the gag around his neck. ‘You can’t just waste good meat like that. Look, it’s got your spit all over it.’ Charles stood up, his eyes hateful, and he looked at Hugh’s stumps where his legs used to be. Charles leaned over the bench and palmed a meat cleaver. The sullen light came in through the open door and glinted off the blade. Charles knelt down again and began his work on removing Hugh’s arms, all the while whistling softly, but not too loud, so as to not attract the attention of the ones outside.
The Rose Tattoo
Kip Flannaghan took a drag on last night’s cigarette, then took his hat off the hook and stepped into the rain. He had been called out to a murder at the docks. He didn’t want to go. He got in his car, produced his mobile phone from his coat pocket, hit redial.
‘Yeah, Dad, it’s me. Again. I think I’m going to come back to Ireland. Yeah, that’s what I wanted to get away from. It’s just … there’s things going on that I’m having trouble dealing with. You were right, pop. You were always right.’ Kip pulled the car against the sidewalk and got out. The red and blue lights of the emergency vehicles painted against his face and jacket. He walked over to a coated figure looking over a body on the ground. It was once a young girl. She had a clothing deficiency.
‘We can’t find anything on her,’ said Gary McInter. Kip looked away, watched the rain fall through the glow of the street lamps. ‘The only point of identification is a tattoo of a black rose. I don’t think we’re going to find anything for a long time, Kip.’ Kip fished a cigarette out of his jacket and tried to light it with his lighter, but his finger kept slipping on the wet emery wheel. ‘This is my last one, Gary,’ said Kip Flannaghan. ‘I can’t do this anymore. My psychiatrist won’t prescribe me any more candies, either. I can’t let the dead lie, nor the dead me.;
Kip and Gary drove along Abbey Road in silence, the images of the young, tattooed girl like powder in their minds. They had nothing to say on the matter. Kip bought his ticket back to Ireland the next day, but he was never to use it. He died in the back alley of a pharmacy on Heron Street, his police issued pistol empty, his pockets full of prescription sleeping pills. The last thing he saw was a young girl, a rose tattoo on her wrist, her eyes yellow, the light in the iris expired, her mouth peppered with necrosis, her body riddled .9mm bullets. He watched her shuffle away, one leg dragging behind her, and then everything went dark.
The Foul Within
It always starts off bad and turns worse. Some could say my case started worse and turned bad. Who can tell? We’ve all lived and lost in this crazy thing we call the apocalypse, but one thing we can all agree on is this: some lose more than they deserve, and others live more than should. When I looked at the remains of my three year old daughter, I knew then that life was never the way I had imagined it, and that for all my years I had lived behind an illusion illuminated by spotlights and shadows on the walls projected by invisible creatures none of us would ever like to see.
It’s a tough gig being a father. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you the same thing. People say burying your children is unnatural, but I believe that nature gets to decide those rules. I think we should have contempt for death, but when I threw the match at the petrol-drenched corpse of my baby girl, her hair matted to her glistening skin, one eye locked open, its pupil as small as a pin-prick, her whites reflecting soft rays of light from the matchstick as it sailed through the air and landed in the pool of petrol that lit up with a whoosh sound and flashed a dirty light across the backyard of my flat, I knew that there would be nothing more difficult to do in my life, and that while the experience flattened my nerves and filled my veins with a burning itch like battery acid, that my future as a survivor of the apocalypse was secure. I was strong. I was ready. I was mentally prepared. But life is an enigma, one that no matter how hard we try, we will never ever figure out.
The burning itch in my veins made the skin around my fingers turn black and made nodules the size of golf balls grow from my back and shoulders. Yeah, I’d been bitten. More of a scratch of the teeth than an actual chomp though. Somehow the infection had dived into my bloodstream like an intravenous hit of heroin administered by the shaking hands of a drug-addict. I think I’m losing it all and I don’t care. I see my baby girl every minute and I know I’ll never see her outside the prison of my mind. I don’t feel bad. I enjoyed the time I had with her and I’m aware I’ll never get it back. At least, that’s what I tell myself. Truth is, deep down, I hope for a place like Heaven where all the dead go and reunite with their friends and family who’ve gone too soon. Because the truth is, that’s what I fear the most. That I’ll walk this city of Dunglen for eternity, while the memories of my child are just as meaningless as dust swimming in a solitary shaft of light.
A Strange Farewell
It starts with I. I locked the door. I poured petrol on the floor from a rust encrusted can. I dropped the flaming match and watched the room light up with orange and red fire. Then came the putrid scent of crisping skin and hair and flaming interiors. By the time I walked to the street, the building was sending claws of fire into the sky, the smoke the colour of crude oil, the sky swollen with blackness. I felt tears run down my cheeks. I spent that night under a bridge surrounded by disinterred bodies I had used to keep away my living smell. In the distance I could see the orange glow of the fire at my flat. I thought about my family inside. I tried to convince myself that I had no choice in the matter.
I didn’t remember falling asleep. The day came up hard and fast and the earth was warmed by the great yellow ball in the sky. The rivers flowed and bubbled under Escosse bridge. The trees seemed to have taken on the characteristics of the dying world. In the sky I saw the silhouette of a falcon eclipsing against the sun. I walked. I walked with no aim, no purpose, the streets cracked and flecked with verdurous weeds growing from beneath the concrete, the buildings empty, looted, their insides as dark and void as a mouth without teeth. Every day became a blur and a memory and I lived on the liminal shore of the old world and this one. I ate from cans of dog food, meat slivers of rats and cats, and suckled on fungal spores growing in the dripping alleys that smelled of urine and rotting corpses. I never wanted to do this alone.
I returned to the flat I had burned down with petrol and a kitchen match. I walked in the ash where my family had once lived, where my children played with blocks and toys given to them by my father, where my wife used to watch television until 2 a.m, where we laughed, where we fought, where we argued, where we shared in the ecstasy of mutual obscene acts under sight of only the deviant eye of God. This was my home. This was their home. I used the butt of my .22 rifle to move blocks of ash, the matter disintegrating with merely a delicate touch. There was nothing here. I thought I found the faint, ashen outline of a small child nestled in the bosom of a protective adult that might have been my wife. But I couldn’t be sure. I wanted to say goodbye but I couldn’t. There was nothing to say goodbye to.
Six Hours Till Sunrise
Born again Christians mystify me. A lot of the time they’re people who’ve lived life to the fullest, and what that really means is that they lived like hedons and thought nothing of the consequences. If I sound jaded and frustrated, then it’s because I know that the last remaining days of my life could be in the presence of those who’ve made the worst possible choices in life, probably even hurt others who didn’t deserve it, and then switched to a winning side at the last possible minute. People don’t change that quick, if at all. It takes years of discipline and work to change one’s personality and behaviour for the best. And here I was, in the back of a tobacco shop with four strangers who probably raped and killed, sitting on the floor while they pray to a God they hope exists just so they can save their own arses. I pulled the tab off a can of McOwen’s and put the rim to my mouth and let the liquid pour down my throat. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and looked over at the dimwits kneeling on the ground like Jesus’s prophets. It’s not that I’m an atheist; it’s just that I know that these clowns are putting on a show, a performance. I looked at my watch: six hours till sunrise, then I can get the hell out of here. I lit a cigarette and held it between my fingers, the smoke curling up my arm. I walked over to the main window that we had barricaded with chairs and tables from the green room, and I could see dark outlines writhing in the night. I wanted to drop to my knee in an act of genuflexion before Oppenhimer and go American and dump an A-Bomb on them and be done with it all. I put the butt of the cigarette to my mouth and the end tautened and burned red. I looked over and saw The Group giving each other baptisms with water from the toilet cistern. I thought maybe better dump that A-Bomb on those still alive first. A motioned a silent benediction and stubbed the cigarette out on the glass window and sat down on the woollen blanket that had become both my bed and potentially my hereafter tomb. I lay in the foetal position and waited for my time to come.
Dunglen city was my home. It was home to a lot of people. What are you supposed to feel when you look out at your city that you thought you knew and see it for all its bad, and know that the place you knew and loved was gone? When the wind kicks up and blows plastic bags from Krieger’s supermarket, it just makes me feel depressed to think that the place is dead and dusty, that humanity has been abandoned to the darkest forces of which most of us could never have imagined.
I was getting out of Dunglen. I had taken a duffel bag from the living room of a flat on Potter Avenue and filled it with clothes I’d found in the bedroom. I used a screwdriver to pry open the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and I raked the pill bottles onto the stuffed clothes in the bag. I filled an empty bottle with water from the cistern and then climbed out the window I had broken to get in. The avenue was misted, and the mist moved like a silk sheet flowing down a slight descent. My brow started to sweat and my hands were hot around the duffelbag’s strap.
When I moved, I moved fast. I threw the bag over a fence and chased after it. By the time I got to Wintry Drive I could see those ghouls twisting in the fog like marionettes being pulled by strings controlled by a thousand hands at a “sharp angle. I slipped the .42 revolver from my bag and thumbed back the hammer. I stepped backwards, the mist breaking against my body, and when I turned my head I saw black smudges ink in the distance. I heard the feet scratch against the road, the bones in their toes scraping the pavement. I felt a bead of sweat swell across my lips. The breeze ruffled my shirt and I felt the wetness of the cloth slap against my back. I couldn’t remember how I had led myself into this situation. A cone of light ballooned from the muzzle of the revolver when I pulled the trigger, and I saw what looked like black paint spray into the air, the head it came from vanishing. I squeezed again and another outline faded from view, the muzzle flash igniting the crooked faces one might associate with alcoholic nightmares. I expended all six cartridges and then let the smoking shells tinkle against the road, the mist eating them up and fading them from view. The gloom persisted. The undead skittled. I popped open a medicine bottle and chewed all the pills that came out. The shadows advanced upon me.
The Last in Line
Private Brian Stalwart was my husband. He arrived in the afternoon, blood dripping from the wounds in his neck, chest, and stomach. He hadn’t been on the battlefield. In fact, he hadn’t even been deployed. Two citizens found him wounded in the gutter on Lennon Road. He was faintly breathing and was enveloped in his military uniform. The citizens took him by the arms to the medical wing of the Dunglen barracks. He was later pronounced deceased; his parents were notified by the six o’clock news. At around midnight that same day, Private Brian Stalwart rose from the military morgue, his bloody wounds crusted, his hair matted, eyes blood-shot. He was dead, but walking. It sounds crazy, insane, mad, but this story is true; a story that all the surviving soldiers can attest. The earth fell into a deep depression, one that will probably last until all life on earth is gone and the sun clicks off its lights. For the inhabitants that had to endure this suffering, there is nothing left to say.
Emotional struggle is limited by the strong, but even the strongest will collapse upon themselves on the surface of Jupiter. Brian Stalwart is a name that is remembered for all the wrong reasons; he is a superstition, a myth, a legend, an unwanted gadfly that lives in the stained red walls of the Dunglen barracks, and for as long as the sun continues to burn, Private Stalwart’s horrific legacy will remain.
A Faceless Truth
Victor Dane wiped the bar and looked at the street through the window. Leaves bounced under the street lights. Victor looked over at the patron at the far end of the bar. ‘Can I get you something else?’ asked Victor. The patron remained silent. A shadow broke across the street. The patron, Charles Darbonne, finished his drink and slid a pound fifty onto the wooden counter and stood up. He held onto the counter for a moment and corrected himself, then walked out the front door. Elizabeth Dane walked up from the cellar of the Clansman. ‘Strange fellow that one is,’ she said. She kissed her husband on the cheek and started filling the shelf with liquor bottles. She thought she heard glass shattering outside. Elizabeth Dane screamed louder than she had ever screamed before. She couldn’t believe it had come from herself. The front window of the Clansman exploded and in shuffled a dusty, old, decapitated corpse – the sort that should have been confined to a cemetery. Victor turned away just as a bony hand slashed across his face. Blood teared down his neck. Elizabeth reached for the revolver behind the counter and cocked it. She had fired as many shots as possible, each time the hammer of the Colt snapping against the cartridges, the smell of cordite filling the air. But the headless corpse held no apparent emotions, and it continued to drag her husband outside. Elizabeth would never forget that faceless skull staring at her.
‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’
A loud thump came from the oaken doors.
‘The courage to change the things I can.’
The candle flickered and wax dripped down its shaft and pooled on the pine table, the golden light expanding like a bubble in the dark. A man was kneeling before an altar. A crucified Christ looked down upon him.
The wooden door shook again and groaned as a result of the force that pushed against it. The man wiped his palms on his trousers. The cartilage in his jaw tightened as he swallowed. He closed his eyes and spoke the last line in a whisper:
‘And the wisdom to know the difference.’
Father Ronan rose to his feet. He picked up the candle, its glow warping the walls with a ring of light. What was the difference between this and the bathypelagic depths? The doors wouldn’t hold forever. The priest clenched his crucifix necklace in his hand, his breath misting in the cold, the blood on his hands as dark as crude-oil. He looked across at his smock draped over a pew. He now wore a pair of jeans and a long-necked sweater. The heavy clattering of the rain pinged against the church’s roof. Thin tears of water slid down the stained-glass windows.
He hadn’t known much more than what the radio told him. Like most people, he didn’t believe it until he saw it. The undead. Zombies. Minions of Hell, Minions of our Unconscious. Jotunheim, Hel, Hades, the Liminal Shore. He thought his church could impart him sanctum, but now he wondered whether there was any place left on Earth that could.
He went calmly to the office through an oak door, the moonlight falling through the window highlighting the matted blood in his hair. But the blood was not his own, nor the blood-whips upon his face, nor the spatter upon his hands. The clatter on the roof grew louder, and the main doors bulged and curved from the pressure of the army that came to war against God and his servants. Father Ronan’s calmness was a shroud for the trembling he tried so very hard to banish. He pulled out a pistol from his waistband. Hills upon the skyline were seen through the rain-stained window. A transformer box was sparking.
He ignored all that and instead glanced at the body on the floor: marmoreal eyes winking in the candle-light. He knelt. He ran his hands through his hair, palmed his face, pressed his fingers to his lips, tasted the blood on his skin. His mind projected images of that young girl who had been killed, and he saw her alive again, dancing in the rain, showered by sparks of the transformer box, a show just for him and her.
Oh God, why is this happening? I’m not strong enough for this.
He released the pistol clip and checked the rounds. Enough for at least Plan B. He heard the stiff fingernails and hands of the undead biting into the oaken door, splintering the wood and tearing it off from its iron hinges. It crumbled to the floor like a mediaeval draw-bridge.
She was bitten. I had no choice. She told me not to, but I did it anyway. What do you make of that?
He reinserted the clip and pulled back the receiver and chambered a round. He rolled the girl’s head and gazed into the eyes that looked like glass. He looked away.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
He could smell the cordite and blood on his hands. A smell he knew he would never forget.
The courage to change the things I can.
A tree of lightning bloomed through the window, no thunder. Leaves battered against the glass.
‘Rest in peace now, girl. May the world remember you for your best. Take it up with the judges on the other side of the hall. Amen, sweet pea.’
The girl had come for protection. She had claimed the marks on her arm had been caused by a dog. Could have been the truth. He’d asked her to close her eyes and pray, and while she knelt on the cold floor he unlocked the safe under the desk and took out the pistol from the oiled cloth in which it had been wrapped. His eyes rolled back in his head and sweat ran down his palms. It started to rain at that moment. Maybe it was symbolic. They say the dead can speak to us through the water. The pistol felt heavy in his hands. The recoil of the first shot took him off-guard and the bullet missed. The girl screamed. She scrambled across the ground, her palms leaving foggy marks on the polished stone, and then Father Ronan panicked and started firing blindly. The bullets took out chunks from the stone floor, chopped up the wooden furniture, cracked the walls, the muzzle of the pistol sparking, smoke clouding the office, the deafening shots pounding the priest’s ears. He fired almost a quarter of the clip before stopping.
He blinked swiftly, his vision clipping the images of the young girl on the floor. A chunk of flesh had been cut out of her neck. Blood was escaping like a broken drainpipe. Her mouth snapped open and closed as she gasped for a breath she would never get.
Father Ronan stared blankly at the memory. He came out of his reverie when he heard the dragging of legs that sounded like bones scratching against old tombs. He pressed the muzzle of the pistol against the side of his head. Squeezed shut his eyes. His eyelids flurried. Beads of sweat lined down his forehead. He clicked his tongue against his teeth. Held his breath. A charge of electricity twisted through the clouds, illumined the room, birthed shadows as horrible as the demiurge. The gun trembled in his trembling hand.
You make me take two lives tonight? I can’t do it. I can’t fucking doing it. I’ve borne burdens from the day I was born and yet Your thirst for the suffering of man is unquenchable.
He let the gun fall from his hand and he heard it clatter against the floor. From the desk he hefted a paper-weight and pitched it as hard as he could at the window. The glass burst apart, chips rained down. Wind and rain and leaves blew in through the naked space. He reached for the window as he had reached for the Lord. Both were out of his grasp.
It was too late. The dead moved faster than the living when there was nothing left to weigh them down. The hands took him, so many hands. Teeth, so many teeth, so much pain. The eyes of the dead girl watched as the undead clawed off his skin as if it were linen. He thought she had smiled at him. When he searched the faded eyes of the undead tearing apart his body, in hopes of finding an answer to the cruelty he was experiencing, he found no such answer nor reason nor logos nor salvation nor meaning for his destruction. But then maybe the search for answers amongst the products of evil is facile, and that the real answers are found amongst ourselves. Although on the other hand, sometimes there are no answers.
The ambivalence he felt when his legs were removed from their sockets made him wonder whether he was cursed from the beginning.
And the wisdom to know the difference.